Scientists have recovered fossils of a 60-million-year-old South American snake whose length and weight might make today's anacondas and reticulated pythons seem a bit cuter and more cuddly.
Named Titanoboa cerrejonensis by its discoverers, the size of the snake's vertebrae suggest it weighed 1140 kg (2,500 pounds) and measured 13 metres (42.7 feet) nose to tail tip. A report describing the find appears in this week's Nature.
Drs Jason Head and David Polly carried out much of the quantitative work behind the discovery whilst working in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London; they identified the position of the fossil vertebrae which made a size estimate possible. Now based at the University of Indiana, Polly explains: "At its greatest width, the snake would have come up to about your hips. The size is pretty amazing. But our team went a step further and asked, how warm would the Earth have to be to support a body of this size?"
Crews led by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Florida's Florida Museum of Natural History discovered the fossils in the Cerrejon Coal Mine in northern Colombia, and together with lead-author Jason Head now of the University of Toronto-Mississauga, used its size to make an estimate of Earth's temperature 58 to 60 million years ago in tropical South America.
Paleontologists have long known of a rough correlation between an age's temperature and the size of its poikilotherms (cold-blooded creatures). Over geological time, as ages get warmer, so does the upper size limit on poikilotherms.
"There are many ways the anatomy of a species is correlated with its environment on broad scales," Polly said. "If we understand these correlations better, we will know more about how climate and climate change affect species, as well as how we can infer things about past climates from the morphology of the species that liv
|Contact: Sian Halkyard|
Queen Mary, University of London